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The psychology behind mass murder

| Friday, October 6, 2017

Influential 16th-century French Renaissance author Michel de Montaigne — called the father of modern skepticism for popularizing his essays as a literary genre — wrote, “The oldest and best known evil was ever more supportable than one that was new and untried.” Hardly can one argue with the notion that behavior, especially malevolence that gratifies our inner human frailties, will repeat from generation to generation. Such wickedness can easily be traced through eons of mankind’s history.

It is natural, then, to compare Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock with foreign butchers such as Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, IS chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. On the domestic front Paddock reigns above such assassins as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza or Pulse Night Club triggerman Omar Mateen. While their obvious motivations may have varied by religious, political or personal purpose, each utilized murderous actions that were in some way the oldest and best known.

Today, authorities continue to piece together the whys and hows behind mass shooter Paddock’s Las Vegas deadly rampage. It is important to recognize the psychological influences that blended with Paddock’s means, motive and opportunities. Given that firearms are plentiful nationwide and soft targets like an open-air concert flourish on the calendar, means and opportunity seem commonplace for anyone bent on wreaking havoc upon others. Paddock was no exception, equipped with cameras for surveillance and armed with explosives as well as nearly two-dozen weapons in his hotel sniper’s nest room.

Where Paddock’s oldest and best-known evil varies from the norm is not perching high to fire into a densely populated and contained open air venue, but the means by which he executed his plan. Paddock utilized bump-fire stock attachments on a dozen of the guns found in his hotel room. The mechanism rests on the shooter’s shoulder and allows the gun barrel to slide, thus enabling a semiautomatic rifle to fire faster. Bump-fire stocks— while technically not converting semi-automatic rifles or altering them into fully automatic firearms — enhance a weapon to fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun. Therefore, laws governing “automatic” firearms do not prohibit these enhancement mechanisms. (It is illegal for private citizens to possess fully automatic firearms manufactured after May 19, 1986. The ownership of earlier models requires a federal license.)

Certainly legislative attention will once again focus on prohibiting large capacity magazines to reduce the number of rounds loaded into a rifle. More importantly, though, many advocacy groups now seek laws that outright prohibit the possession or manufacture of the “bump stock” attachment. These efforts, while a worthy exercise in democracy and public safety discourse, only address how to limit access to means and opportunities. To successfully limit and hopefully prevent future massacres, society must complete the analytical trifecta by better understanding motive.

Motive — welling from any myriad of circumstances — is the key to preventing the next person from “going postal.” While, as of this writing, no evidence has emerged that Paddock suffered from any clinically diagnosed mental health abnormalities, humans possess certain universal traits. How one reacts or controls inner emotional strain may be the thread dividing good from evil acts.

In historical terms, Paddock now escorts McVeigh, Lanza and Mateen as American madmen. Behavioral scholars will now bond and contrast Paddock’s psyche to Hitler, bin Laden and Al-Baghdadi. In fact, Hitler’s global prominence served as the impetus that led the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) to commission a 1943 psychological analysis of Hitler, the first analytical endeavor of its kind. Led by Henry A. Murray, former director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, a team of psychologists reviewed “The Hitler Source Book,” a thousand pages of material gathered from key informants who knew Hitler personally. Within five months the team constructed a psychological analysis of Hitler using the developmental influence of his early childhood experiences, an approach heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories. Today, when the mechanics of Freudian analysis is not the only scholarly approach accepted, the CIA and its counterparts worldwide operate profiling units as a discipline that gathers information on many leaders of other nations.

What we learned by Hitler’s documented behavior and demeanor appears to comport with the general traits of others hell bent on lashing out at others. At times, mania or hypomania masks a chronic underlying state of despair, sadness and rage. Hitler, for example, as an adult was motivated by resentment and revenge in response to prior narcissistic wounding and profound feelings of inferiority. His suggested paranoid schizophrenic and hysterical megalomaniac disorders grew from immense anger, embitterment and hatred toward his father. Those feelings fueled much of his symptomatology and destructive behavior manifest in his hatred, next transferred to Jews and ultimately the world. He at times also displayed a messiah complex typical of religious terrorists today.

Overall, to understand the underlying psychology of such dangerous individuals as the unsuspecting Paddock, we must understand what pushes them, what makes them tick, what tensions are harbored beneath their souls. The next may be a road rage instigator or the sports competitor playing across from you. For me, that is too close, but still unrecognizable.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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